Love Lost: Carl Sandburg: selected poems

I used to love Carl Sandburg. After reading Carl Sandburg: selected poems (edited by Paul Berman)? Ummm.

Certainly, there is no other poet like Carl Sandburg. Sandburg, like Upton Sinclair, turns industrial horrors and realities into art. Where The Jungle depicts a reality and argues for a specific solution in plain terms, Sandburg’s poetry ranges from glorification of industry and its effects to condemnation of it. He is early 20th century Chicago.

Sandburg possess an unparalleled talent for metaphor. He depicts people and places and things concisely and wholly without cliché. A journalist, Sandburg clearly developed an eye for identifying the salient and distinctive features of a face, a man, a city and so Sandburg’s poetry abounds with original and resonant similes and metaphors. “Smoke and Steel” is a keen example of his prowess: this longer poem (in Sandburg terms), extends the metaphor that steel is produced from the combination of smoke and blood. “Smoke” and “blood” themselves become metonymies and the result is a sorrowfully beautiful poem about the toil heavy industry has taken on humanity. Sandburg’s images sparkle with clarity and inventiveness.

Sandburg’s poems also have a distinctive breathless quality. His lines either run long and encompass whole thoughts and worlds or are chopped short, offering a just a couple of words at a time. Like all poems, the lines are carefully constructed for sound and sense, but Sandburg’s has a naturalness to their composition. His words are spoken easily. In this way, the form of their poems mirror their content; they are poems for the everyman about the everyman, that holy grail of poetry: accessibility.

However, as my familiarity with a larger swath of Sandburg’s work grew, my love for him, as a poet, declined. Sandburg is not a one-hit wonder – I was surprised by how many poems across his career impressed and excited me – but he is a one-note wonder. The Chicago worker is essentially his only subject, and the white, male Chicago worker at that. The black men and women who suffered at the hands of industry and 20th century economics are by and large absent from his vision and Sandburg’s inventiveness wanes rapidly toward cliche when depicting the hardships of white working women.

Nevertheless, Sandburg deserves a place among the greats and a place in our high school curricula. I intend to use several of his poems in my own teaching both for their instructive and accessible form and atypical subject matter. As a 21st century feminist, Sandburg’s male focus doesn’t thrill me, even if some of his individual poems still do.

Up Next: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
Why? Streetcar is actually the only Williams I’ve ever read and that seems… wrong.


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